Arc II Chapter 43: Hall of Many Ways


Shias fell out of the portal onto a flat, hard surface. Luckily, he landed feet first. The sky around him was light, but it was a strange, diffuse sort of light, and as he took stock of his surroundings, he realized why.

He had never in his life seen so many stars shine so brightly.

All around him was a night sky, brilliant and beautiful in a way he’d never conceived. Stars shone and twinkled and dazzled with their light, illuminating the expanse around him so that it didn’t seem like it was nighttime at all.

Looking around, Shias found he was in some sort of rooftop park. There were people here and there, though he couldn’t see too far in any one direction because of hedges and flowering trees breaking up the view. The people already here didn’t seem to notice the portal, and soon all of Shias’ companions were safe in the park with him. Shana, still holding Altair, lifted her dog to her face and kissed him on the cheek. He returned the favor by licking her nose, and she laughed.

Kathryn looked spunky and optimistic, as she always did, taking in the sights with a delighted smile. Ben stared at the sky and breathed a quiet “Oh, snap.” Rae held her hands to her chest, looking around nervously at the strange new place, and she inched closer to Shias as she did so.

Maribelle and Annabelle came last, and both of them looked around the park with a sense of familiarity.

“Mother said we should go to Starlight Spires?” Maribelle asked, looking questioningly at her little sister.

Annabelle nodded, her long red curls bobbing. “There’s a man in the music library we should talk to,” she said. “His name is Lahain.”

Maribelle eyed Annabelle curiously. “How come you know all of this, and I don’t?”

Annabelle shrugged, her expression nonchalant. “Mother told me and not you. Don’t ask me why.”

Maribelle sighed, and then burst into laughter. She scooped Annabelle up in her arms, spinning round and round as she embraced the little girl. “I missed you so much!”

“Put me down!” Annabelle protested, arms and legs flailing helplessly in Maribelle’s grip.

“Not a chance, kiddo,” Maribelle said, stopping the spinning and just staring at her little sister, eyes bright, lips parted in a smile. “Thank you.”

“For what?” Annabelle asked, pursing her lips.

“For sending Shana to me,” Maribelle said. “For passing on the message. For making sure I knew you hadn’t left. I hate to say it, but I…”

Annabelle nodded, her childish face showing an oddly sagely expression, as she reached up and patted her older sister on the head. “I know,” she said. “You’d lost all hope. You always were so dramatic.”

“And you always were annoyingly mature for your age,” Maribelle said, laughing as she put Annabelle down and ruffled her hair, much to the little girl’s annoyance. “You and Isabelle may be twins, but you wouldn’t be able to tell beyond your looks.”

“As you and so many others never tire of telling us,” Annabelle said. She turned to Shana, and her entire demeanor changed. She’d seemed so oddly adult when dealing with Maribelle, but now she was back to the soft, lonely little girl that Shias and the others had first encountered. She ran up to Shana and wrapped her legs in a hug, pressing her face against Shana’s stomach.

“Oh, I forgot all about this,” Maribelle said. She gave Shana a warm, rather motherly look. “Anna only acts that way with people she’s truly come to care for and trust – which means she likes you even more than her big sister.”

“It’s not a competition,” Annabelle’s muffled voice said. She lifted her head, staring up at Shana with adoring wide eyes. “Thank you. I know I entrusted you with the message, but I didn’t think you’d actually come. And when the Royal Guard set their trap, I thought there was no chance of you succeeding. But you didn’t give up, even when I did. Thank you.”

Shana smiled, crouching down to return the girl’s embrace. “I told you I would, didn’t I?” she asked, hiding her face in Annabelle’s hair for a moment. Shias smiled. He knew that Shana was struggling with her emotions, and was using the little girl’s wild hair to give her a chance to avoid crying.

Shias turned around, taking in the location while the others conversed amicably. Maribelle wandered over to him, looking at him as if waiting for him to speak.

“Are we actually safe here?” he asked quietly. “Annabelle said it’s possible the Radiance can follow us through her portals.”

“We would have seen them if they’d come through,” Maribelle said. “So they didn’t follow us. And this city is a pretty convenient place to be when there are people out to get you. They have one law that is absolutely enforced – no one can cause harm to another. Anyone who does is immediately imprisoned. The magic at work in this place is amazing.”

Shias had to agree with that, but that didn’t mean they were in the clear. “You don’t need to cause harm in order to take someone hostage.”

Maribelle nodded. “Fair point. But if Anna knows what she says she knows, then we shouldn’t have to be here very long.”

“Mind if I ask a question?” Shias asked. At Maribelle’s nod, he continued. “I noticed when you tried to fight the Gold Knight, something happened. It was like you couldn’t attack him. Are you all right?”

“One of Takina’s rules, the Covenants that bind her power, that I cannot break, is that she can only be wielded against enemies.” Maribelle frowned. “I’ve only had this happen once before, when I was in the thick of a chaotic battle and accidentally swung towards a friend. Takina pulled my hand back – she prevents me from breaking the Covenants. And… against the Gold Knight, the very same thing happened.”

“That doesn’t seem to make sense,” Shias said. “He was trying to kill you.”

“You’re right, it doesn’t seem to make sense,” Maribelle said. “I don’t understand it yet. But I will keep it in my mind the next time we meet, if such a day comes. Now I’m even more curious about who is underneath all of that armor.” She smiled, then, looking out at the starry sky. She breathed in deep, and let it out in a wistful sigh. “Ah, I wish I could linger here. It’s one of my favorite Locations in the Dominion.”

“You always were too much of a wanderer,” Annabelle said, joining the pair. “We should probably at least let them see a full view of the city, right?”

Maribelle grinned, nodding. “Oh, yes,” she said breathlessly.

The two Princesses of Solitude led Shias, Shana, and the others through the park, until they reached a railing that looked like the very edge. Shias had thought it was a rooftop park, and this confirmed it. But when he actually stood at the railing and stared out over the edge…

“Oh, snap,” he and Ben whispered at the same time. They looked at each other, and burst out laughing.

It certainly was an “oh, snap” sort of sight, and then some. The first thing Shias noticed, and it sent his mind reeling, was that the starlit sky wasn’t just above and around them – it was below them, too. It was as if they were within a massive starlit globe, and without an actual ground below, Shias found himself, for a brief moment, feeling a sense of vertigo.

But there was more to see, and it was easy to distract himself from being disoriented. After all, there were a great many strange buildings around them.

“Starlight Spires.” That’s what Maribelle and Annabelle had called this place, and Shias knew why. Every building was a massive tower, an impossibly huge spire, floating suspended in the sky. They were all connected by bridges of varying lengths, widths, and designs. The bottom floors of the spires were rarely at the same height – there was no uniform “floor” to the city – and they were all of varying heights, so their tops also formed a very uneven and scattered skyline.

What truly staggered Shias was the size of everything. These buildings were massive, architecturally impossible with hundreds, perhaps thousands of floors on some, and were incredibly wide as well. There were some with middle floors totally open to the air, and these housed zoos and parks, museums and swimming pools. Balconies weren’t a luxury in this place, they were everywhere, and they were lavish and spacious and architecturally inventive – some spiraling, some multi-tiered, some with outdoor library-garden hybrids that Shias envied. As he looked around even more, Shias realized something.

They were at the top of everything.

Whatever spire they were on was the tallest of them all, and it wasn’t even a contest. Height wasn’t all there was to this building, either – judging by the vast area of the rooftop park, which Shias was sure he’d only seen a small corner of so far, he knew that this building, this spire, this monolith that boggled even his wild imagination, was far and beyond the largest of all the spires in this strange, fantastical city. Leaning out over the edge, Shias saw that, while all of the other spires were designed so as to have darker blacks and blues and purples, as well as reflective surfaces to blend and enhance the starlight, the massive tower he stood at the top of had walls that were a pearly white, and shone with many dazzling lights of their own.

And then Shias noticed how far down it was to the bottom. Far, far below him, he could see a wide road filled with people that led into the massive tower. He was so high up, though, that individual people were practically microscopic – which made it clear just how many people there were, since even at this height it looked to Shias like a massive crowd the likes of which he’d never seen in person.

“This is the center of Starlight Spires, Millennium Vista,” Maribelle said. “It’s so big, that it’s sort of a city in itself – a city within a city, you could say.”

“I believe it,” Shias said, gaping at the enormity of everything. “Where in this place do we need to go?”

“The music library,” Annabelle said. “It’s pretty far down, but the lifts here move fast, even with lots of traffic. It shouldn’t take too long.”

The Princesses led the way, and Shana was close behind, her and Kathryn chatting back and forth excitedly about this amazing city. Rae was close to them, listening and smiling. At the back of the group were Shias and Ben.

“You feeling okay after everything?” Ben asked.

Shias nodded. “A little tired, but that’s no surprise.” He smiled at Ben. “You were amazing, by the way. I didn’t expect you to be so gutsy, but it paid off. And I’m amazed you held out that long with all those clones. That seems exhausting.”

“Not clones,” Ben said. “I like to call them ‘doppels.’ It’s short for doppelgangers. Much cooler sounding than ‘clones.’ And… yeah. I’m pretty surprised I could keep that up. But right now, I’m feeling like it’s time for a nap. I hope we don’t have to push on much longer.”

“Don’t worry, if any trouble comes, I’ll protect you.”

Ben groaned. “You don’t have to be patronizing.”

Shias smiled. “My specialty is Guardian Magic. Protecting you, and everyone else, is my job.”

Ben bobbed his head side to side, considering Shias’ claim, and then nodded. “Fair enough.” He tapped out a brief rhythm on his thighs. “We saved Annabelle, so… what’s next?”

Shias looked ahead at his sister. “Like Shana’s dream showed her, we need to get the two of them to the center of the Library of Solitude. From there… who knows? I’m sure we’ll figure it out.”

“Just between you and me… I didn’t think things would last this long. And I didn’t exactly explain to my parents where I was going. Well, I didn’t have much of a chance to, considering we just went for it with Lock when we found him, but… I guess I’m kinda worried about home, ya know? I know what we’re doing is important, but I kinda feel like I was just dropped into it. I care about you guys, and I want to help out. I’m not trying to complain, I just…”

Shias chuckled. “I get it, don’t worry. I’m glad to have you here, just so you know. And I want to get home, too. But just try to hang in there. You’re not in this alone. I’ve got your back, and when we get back, let’s make sure to do something fun.”

Ben grinned. “Sounds good to me.”

They took an old-fashioned style elevator – which Shias learned was called a “lift” here – down through Millennium Vista. It was a surprisingly silent ride, despite its appearance, and even the metal grated sliding door was nearly noiseless in its opening and closing. The warm colors gave it a surprisingly cozy atmosphere, and even when another fifteen people joined the group for part of the ride, it wasn’t cramped. This was a spacious lift, larger than any elevators Shias had been in by a large margin. Though not getting cramped was also thanks to the deft handling by Samuel, the lift operator. Whenever it was teetering on the edge of crowded, Samuel would halt new arrivals at the door and point to the placard inside that helpfully explained that the lift’s capacity was thirty people. It was a surprising number choice, Shias thought, since even with thirty people in all, it wasn’t so bad.

Although something wasn’t quite right. Shias noticed it, but looking around, no one else seemed to. Maybe it meant nothing, but he needed to keep it in mind.

What really caught Shias’ eye were the floor numbers. They started at the top floor, which was strangely numbered 236G. The next floor below that was 31, and the more Shias stared at the buttons that displayed the floors in order, the more he was fascinated – and confused. Floor 1, for one thing, was smack in the middle of the floors. Some floors had both numbers and letters – like 43R, which they were currently passing – while others were just numbers, but they weren’t ordered by any pattern that Shias understood. He was determined to find one if there was one, though, and his desire to see what he could see at each stop the lift made was overridden by his desire to comprehend the numbering. Even then, in the back of his mind, he understood that there were very likely to be any number of foreign systems – be they cultural, or geographical, or regional – that he knew nothing about that could be the backbone of this pattern, leaving him completely unable to solve it with his current knowledge set.

Still, he wanted to give it his best shot.

Each time they stopped, though, Shias took a moment to count how many people were inside the lift – particularly when Samuel turned newcomers away due to the capacity.

Every time, it was the same odd choice. Finally, noticing that pattern continued, Shias slipped his hand into his pocket and used his Divination Magic as subtly as he could.

Ah. So I was right. And Samuel seems to know about it, or he wouldn’t keep turning people away. Maybe it’s normal for people around here to make themselves invisible with magic? I wish I could see who the person was, but if they follow us out of here, then I’ll know enough.

Their destination was floor 317H, which was pretty far down, near the bottom in relative terms, If Shias counted up from the bottom – the bottom floor was conspicuously numbered 1313 – then 317H was floor one hundred and six. And judging by how many buttons there were… it was hard to even fathom it. Shias knew that the tallest building on Earth had one hundred and sixty-three floors.

Millennium Vista had precisely four thousand, two hundred and eighty.

That wasn’t all. This lift was dedicated to one section of Millennium Vista: “Anthologies, Archives, and Anecdotes.” There were four sections in total, and if those sections were as individualized as this one, then that meant the massive spire they were in could conceivably be listed as having four times the number of floors it had.

As if four thousand two hundred and eighty floors weren’t enough, that calculation would put the number at seventeen thousand one hundred and twenty.

This… is an utterly insane, completely impossible structure by human standards.

I love it.

Why don’t more humans know about the Enchanted Dominion? Why don’t we learn about this in school? Even mom and dad thought this place was just part of stories invented by grandpa.

We have to visit grandpa when we get back to Grimoire. I want to know how much he actually knows and has seen with his own eyes. I want to trade stories.

They reached floor 317H in what seemed like incredible time. But Shias had been so focused on his counting and mental math, not to mention pattern recognition – to his chagrin, he’d failed to decipher the pattern of the floor numbers – that he knew it could have taken much longer than it seemed to him. Piling out of the lift with his group, he found himself staring in awe at the sight before them.

“Welcome to one of the largest libraries in the known universe,” Maribelle said. “This, and two others within Millennium Vista, are second only to the Library of Solitude in size.”

The music library was a massive, multi-floor, open concept library like Shias had only dreamed of, and it brought a smile to his face. Straight ahead was an open hallway that stretched on farther than he could see, as if the library’s horizon was only a glimpse of what the entire space had in store. Above and around him, there were almost no walls at all. Stairs climbed to the second floor, the third, the fourth, and higher, and Shias could see it all so clearly. Narrow walkways, arching bridges, small platforms designed as little study areas, there was so much to take in. The walls, floors, and ceiling used soft, bright whites to give the space an inviting atmosphere.

“So we’re supposed to meet Lahain here?” Maribelle asked. “How do we find him?”

“I know him,” Annabelle said, strolling to the right and up a wide, curved staircase. “Mother introduced me to him once.”

“How come I don’t know anything at all about this man?” Maribelle asked, as she and the others followed the little girl.

“Because you were off on one of your trips when she introduced me,” Annabelle said. “And then… well, it wasn’t so long after that when everything turned really horrible.”

Maribelle’s eyes fell. “So it was right around the time that she vanished,” she said. “And not long before you would, too.”

“What happened?” Shana asked.

Maribelle sighed. “Annabelle, Isabelle, myself… we aren’t the only Princesses of Solitude. There were once ten of us. I’m not the oldest – the two oldest disappeared when I was too young to remember. With each new disappearance, mother became more worried, more suspicious that there was some intent behind it. She would leave, quite a lot in later years, to search for our sisters herself. For a long time, when mother was away, there were just the four of us.”

“Four of you?” Shias asked.

“Ah,” Maribelle said, nodding. “Yes, well…”

“It’s hard to talk about her,” Annabelle said in a small voice.

“We don’t speak her name anymore,” Maribelle said. “I’m sorry. All you need to know is that she was the middle sister between myself and the twins. One time, when mother returned from one of her trips, once again to no avail, they had an awful argument. And then… she went away. Mother refused to allow anyone to follow her. But…”

“That trip was you going to look for her yourself, wasn’t it?” Annabelle asked.

Maribelle nodded. “And I found nothing,” she said. “All to return only to find that you, too, had gone missing. So mother took Isabelle and me, and we searched for you. In the end, the three of us were separated. I still don’t know what happened to… to either of them…”

“Lahain knows mother,” Annabelle said, “and he has her trust. He may know things that we don’t.”

Maribelle nodded. “We can hope.”

They climbed to the fourth floor, and then crossed several bridges and small platforms until they were on a walkway against one of the walls of the library. Finally, Annabelle stopped, and the rest of the group stopped with her. She turned, pointing down the stairs in front of them to a little nook in the corner for studying. Alone at the desk, there sat a man with blonde hair. He wore silver-framed glasses, and was dressed rather simply, in a white shirt under a black waistcoat, along with black pants and shoes. One odd thing Shias noticed right away was that, while he had a book open in front of him, next to the book on the table was what looked like a miniature tablet. Its screen was lit up, looking like it was open to a music player, and Shias then confirmed that suspicion when he noticed that the man had wireless earbuds tucked in his ears, and was subtly bobbing his head to the rhythm.

“That’s Lahain,” Annabelle said. “He’ll know how to get home – and maybe he’ll even know about mother and Isabelle.”

Shana nodded. “Let’s go say hello.”

Down the stairs the group went, and even when they crowded around Lahain, the man didn’t look up. He was completely engrossed in his reading and his music, and peeking at the tablet, Shias realized he was listening to Clair de Lune.

Finally, fed up with Lahain’s oblivious nature, Annabelle clenched her hand into a tiny fist and slugged the blonde man in the shoulder.

Lahain jumped in his chair, tugging the earbuds out and staring wide-eyed at Annabelle. For a moment, he looked like he was about to say something angry, but then his eyes changed, as he recognized her.

“Princess Annabelle?” he asked. “You…” He looked around at the group, and dropped into his chair, his whole body closing in toward itself, like he was trying to curl into a ball but knew he couldn’t.

“Lahain,” Annabelle said, staring at the man with hands on her hips and lips pursed in frustration. “I need your help.”

“Y-you…” Lahain said, focusing on Annabelle.

“You realized we were around you, didn’t you?” Maribelle asked gently.

Lahain nodded. “I-I thought you might go away if I pretended you weren’t there,” he said. His right hand went to his mouth, lightly touching his lips with two fingers. “If I’d known it was you, Princess, I w-wouldn’t have acted in such a way. But I’m not – well… I’m not good with…”

“I know,” Annabelle said. “But don’t worry. These are all friends. And this – ” she gestured to Maribelle, “is my sister. We’re trying to get back to the Library of Solitude. Mother said you’d be able to help us.”

“It’s like she could see that the Library would one day become a Lost Location, untethered from the Dominion,” Maribelle said.

Lahain nodded nervously. “She w-warned me that she thought that might happen,” he said. “So you… just like…”

“Just like who?” Annabelle asked.

Lahain nodded a few times, as if to reassure himself. “Isabelle was here,” he said. “I showed her the Song of Solitude, and she and some friends went to the Library.”

“Isabelle’s there?” Maribelle asked, eyes filled with a mixture of emotions. “She… oh, but this is fantastic. Now all we need to do is follow her.”

“You…” Lahain shook his head. “I know Lady Kodoka said to show you the way, but I… it’s become such a dangerous place. You don’t – I mean – I just – well…”

“We know it’s become dangerous,” Maribelle said, looking at Shana, likely remembering the dream Shana had had about Maribelle and her sisters needing to go to the center of the Library. “That’s why we need to go.”

“Can you help us, sir?” Shana asked. “Please?”

Lahain looked around at the group, who all took a step back to give him space to breathe. He stood from his chair shakily, nodding to himself some more, lightly stroking his bottom lip with two fingers.

“R-right,” he said. He started off towards a set of stairs. “Follow me, then. You will need to play the Song of Solitude, but if you don’t have instruments…”

Maribelle nodded. “I can do it,” she said. “But I’ll need a violin.”

Lahain nodded several times, and they stopped on a landing with racks of instruments. There, Lahain gestured wordlessly, and Maribelle took a few moments to pick out a violin and bow for herself. While they stood there, and Annabelle asked about her mother, Shias felt his heart begin to beat just a little bit faster.

The invisible person, whoever they were, was following them.

I can only think of one reason why someone would follow us so carefully. And the reason they haven’t done anything yet is just what Maribelle spoke of – they can’t harm anyone within Starlight Spires. So they’re waiting for us to leave.

I’d better be wrong about this. But if I’m not, I need to be prepared. And I can’t warn anyone, either, because that would warn…

Shias casually kept his hand in the pocket that held his pen Talisman, and followed along with the group as they continued on. He stayed at the rear of the group, trying his best to do things he’d never trained for. Caleb had trained with him, helped teach him how to fight. But all Hunters fought were monsters. There was little need for secrecy, for subterfuge, for the kind of sleight of hand and calm, careful mind games that would only be needed against a human foe.

Just stay calm. Don’t give away that you’ve noticed. When they make their move, you’ll be ready to stop them.

Their journey took them higher in the library, to the very top floor, and back towards the wall near the entrance, where Lahain opened a locker, retrieving a musical score. It was a single page of music, and Maribelle held it reverently as Lahain showed them to a practice room.

“Well then, I’ll… leave you… you know,” Lahain said, turning to leave.

“Thank you,” Annabelle said, and Lahain stopped at the doorway. “You don’t have to be ashamed of your anxiety and fear. You’ve helped us a lot. Thank you.”

Lahain looked over his shoulder, his smile one of disbelief. With a nod, he left them.

“Man, this is such a big practice room,” Shana said, stretching her arms overhead. “Convenient, right?”

“What’s going to happen?” Annabelle asked, looking at Maribelle.

“What do you mean?” Shias asked.

“Isabelle has a special flute,” Maribelle said. “When she plays the Song of Solitude on it, the song takes her directly to the Library’s entrance. But with an ordinary instrument… even if I play it perfectly, we won’t know where in the Library we’ll end up. And before getting to the Library, we’ll have to pass through the Hall of Many Ways.”

“Hall of Many Ways?” Shias asked.

Maribelle nodded. “It’s a place between places,” she said. “It has a great many doors, and each door leads to a different Location, or even to Earth, depending on which door you take. I know which door leads to the Library, but that door will never put us in the same place within the Library twice. Even then, for newcomers, it’s easy to get lost. It’s a very distracting place, so stay close to me, and don’t so much as touch the handle of any other doors. They take that as a sign of desire, and will pull you through them whether you like it or not.”

“Sentient doors,” Ben said, shaking his head. “Great.”

Maribelle smiled. “Like I said, just stay close to me, and you’ll be fine.” She raised her violin to her shoulder, looking at the score before her. “Is everyone ready?” Everyone in the group gave their assent, though Shias’ was shaky.

They still haven’t made their move. Which means they’re likely prepared to wait until the Library itself.

I can’t let that happen, can I?

But knowing where we’re about to go… I have an idea.

Shana won’t like it. Sorry, sis.

Maribelle started to play, and something like electricity went straight through Shias’ heart. The song struck him, in a way no song ever had, reaching to the very core of his emotions and drawing out things he hadn’t felt so strongly in a very long time. He felt grief, though he’d never faced tragedy or loss in his life before. He felt longing, though he couldn’t say what he truly missed or desired. Tears stung his eyes, a truly unfamiliar sensation, and for a moment, he was completely overcome.

He stepped over to his sister as the song played, and took her hand. Shana was weeping openly, though her lips were parted in a smile. She looked at him, and he at her, and emotions too big and powerful for words passed between them.

Shias did his best to take hold of himself. He had one thing he needed to do, and he was running out of time. He leaned in close to Shana and pulled her into an embrace. He could feel the surprise in her movements – he hadn’t initiated a hug with her in a very long time. She was always the one to tackle him excitedly, to lean on his shoulder sadly, to reach out to him in times of need. Holding onto his sister, Shias tilted his head down and spoke softly into her ear.

“Stay with Maribelle and Annabelle. They need you. There’s something I need to do. It’s to protect you and the others. I’m sorry. Please don’t try to stop me.”

Shana shuddered, and she pushed Shias away, staring at him with pain and questions in her eyes.

And then, the entire room changed. Stark white walls, floors, and ceiling swirled with a sudden kaleidoscope of color, and everyone in the group – even Maribelle, who had been through this before – stumbled for a moment, as if the ground was giving way beneath them. When they righted themselves they stood in a strange, ethereal wonderland that boggled the senses. Up, down, left, right, these directional bearings were so hard to grasp. Colors and shapes melded and collided with each other so as to completely confuse the eyes. All lines, all clear delineations between floor and wall, wall and ceiling, were gone, leaving Shias feeling as if he was standing in a swirling, colorful cloud.

A cloud filled with doors.

Like Maribelle had said, there were a great many doors, and they came in all shapes, sizes, and styles. They didn’t seem to be attached to anything, reminding Shias of the door that Lock had used to transport them to the Final Frontier. In fact, one door Shias spotted had the Locksmith’s Emblem emblazoned onto it right in the center.

“This way,” Maribelle said, her voice echoing around them, and yet also sounding as if it were being swallowed up by some other force and then modulated, changed into many voices with different tones. While the group followed Maribelle closely, Shias stayed near the rear, his eyes wandering, searching for the right door. He couldn’t just go anywhere. He had to have a good chance of ending up somewhere he’d know, somewhere that he’d have control and at least some form of advantage.

“There it is,” Maribelle said, and Shias felt like he’d run out of time. Would he just have to pick a door at random? The door that Maribelle indicated was a wide, arched one with intricate stonework. In the center was a four-pointed star in the shape of an X, and above it were words carved in a language Shias didn’t recognize.

Looking around, Shias spied a door, finally, that looked hopeful. After all, he’d never seen another door like it anywhere else.

Anywhere except home. The door he was looking at was a perfect recreation of the front door to Greyson Manor.

“Shias –” Shana started, turning back to her brother, and Shias could hear and see that she had so many things she wanted to say, but she couldn’t find the words. Her eyes pleaded with him: Don’t go. Don’t leave me.

“You can show yourself now,” Shias said loudly, ignoring how his voice was warped and echoed around them. “I won’t let you follow us into the Library.”

While his companions looked at him in confusion for a moment, another voice – one that, even with the modulation, Shias recognized – spoke.

“How did you figure it out?”

The voice was cold and icy, almost inhuman. Shias hadn’t heard it for a long time, and had thanked his lucky stars that man wasn’t there when they went to save Annabelle.

Inside the Hall of Many Ways, a blotch of color swirled and then took the shape of a man, finally forming itself into the agent of the Radiant King who had captured Ben in the group’s first visit to the Radiant Palace.

“Void,” Ben said, eyes staring in shock and fear.

“The lift’s capacity was thirty people,” Shias said, staring at the pale man with the dark, predatory eyes. “And yet Samuel was turning people away – even lone individuals – when there were only twenty-nine. He did that enough times that I knew someone must be hiding themselves somehow, and with a bit of Divination Magic, I confirmed it. When you followed us through the library, well… it wasn’t too hard to guess who you might be from that much.”

Void smiled coldly. “Not that you can stop me,” he said. “I’ll just take the Princesses and the Dreamer. I don’t need the rest of –”

Void cut off suddenly as one of Kathryn’s ribbon wands lashed out at him, wrapped around the lower half of his head to cover his mouth. His eyes widened in surprise, and he tugged at the ribbon, but then Ben was in motion – six Bens, in fact, as he rushed the man with his doppels alongside him.

“You guys –” Shias started.

“Don’t be the hero by yourself,” Kathryn said, grinning. “We’ll take this guy together.” She looked at Shana, who was watching the proceedings in shock. “Go ahead, Shana. Get those Princesses where they need to go. We’ll be back together eventually.”

“But I –” Shana started. Altair squirmed in her arms, growling loudly, his eyes focused on Void.

“G-go ahead,” Rae said, raising her Talisman. Brutus came into being, recovered enough from their battle at the Palace to charge Void. “We’ll take care of this.” She looked at Shias, forcing a smile. “Right?”

Shias nodded, then fixed his sister with a serious stare. “Go ahead,” he said. “We’ll meet again.”

Shana stared back at him, eyes swimming with tears, and Shias couldn’t bear to look at her anymore. If he held her gaze like that, he’d start crying, too.

I don’t know if I ever told you, Shana, but I promised. I promised I’d protect you, no matter what.

I know that means I should be by your side as much as possible, but right now, it means we have to part ways… hopefully only for a little while.

“Maribelle!” Shias called, looking to the oldest Princess. “Take care of my sister. Protect her with your life.”

Maribelle stared back at him, and nodded. “Come on, you two,” she said, taking Annabelle and Shana by the shoulders. “Let’s get going.” She smiled at Shias. “Thank you.”

They went through the door, and when it shut behind them, it disappeared.

“Did she say it would do that?” Ben asked, one of his doppels looking at the empty space where the door to the Library had been in dismay.

“Don’t worry about it,” Kathryn said, grinning. “We weren’t going there anyway. Right, Shias?” She nodded towards the door Shias had noticed earlier, the one that was the same as the front door of Greyson Manor.

Shias nodded. “Right. Come on, let’s take this guy somewhere we can keep him locked up.” He ran towards Void, using one of his magical shields to knock the man back a step. Ben’s doppels held Void’s arms, pinning them in place – it took three per arm, a testament to the man’s strength through Enhancement Magic – Kathryn kept Void’s mouth wrapped up tight, and Brutus came along to physically lift both Void and the Ben doppels, carrying them to the door.

Shias raced ahead, and for a moment hesitated as his hand hovered over the doorknob.

“Mom, dad, I hope you aren’t too mad about this,” he said softly. He gripped the doorknob, and suddenly felt himself being pulled through the door. He held his ground, flinging the door open and watching as his companions raced through. Brutus and Rae, Ben and his doppels and Void, and finally Kathryn. When she passed Shias, she continued to flash her winning smile at him.

But Shias noticed, just before he followed after her, that her eyes were filled with tears.


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